No Femtocell Standard Doesn't Mean No Femtocells

Carl Weinschenk

Get ready for femtocells. Telephony Online reports that Samsung's much-publicized trial with Sprint Nextel last year was but one of several the vendor has undertaken in North America. A Samsung executive said that several femtocell-based services will launch in 2008.

The news is interesting for two reasons. The first, of course, is that femtocells -- miniature cellular base stations that can be attached to the ends of cable modems or digital subscriber line (DSL) devices to enhance cellular coverage and to backhaul signals over IP networks -- are about to get a lot more attention. Last month, Infonetics Research said that sales of Global System for Mobile communication/General Packet Radio Services (GSM/GPRS) and 3G femtocell access points will increase 10-fold between 2007 and 2008. Femtocell revenue will reach $630 million in 2010.

The other reason this is a compelling story is in the context of what standardization means. Apparently, vendors aren't politely waiting for the standards process to work its way through. This likely is for two reasons: the the promise of femtocells is so great that the "you snooze, you lose" theory takes over and, secondly, the very nature of standards is changing.

The first possibility is self-explanatory. There is a huge market for devices that can enhance weak cellular coverage -- and interior coverage that will get even weaker as frequencies in use rise higher -- and that can mediate between wireless and cellular services.

The more interesting issue is the transition in the use of standards. Few people argue that standards are unnecessary. Try fitting a blade into a razor or a light bulb into a socket without standards. The reality is, however, that standards may be more of a long-term set of ground rules that don't necessarily have to exist when the technology is first being developed and introduced. The continuing long road to 802.11n shows that the lightening quick evolution of telecommunications requires that vendors must produce (and service providers must roll out) gear when the public asks for it -- not when the IEEE or some other groups gets through a formal (and glacially slow) standards process.

Femtocells will roll out in advance of a standard as well. The good news is that the industry has learned how to execute development cycles in cases in which no standard exists. The keys are for vendors to know what the eventual standard is likely to look like so that they can build bridges between it and their draft-standard gear. Customers, too, must adjust their buying patterns as vendors' ability to seamlessly move from draft to standard becomes a new criterion for shopping.

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Jan 10, 2008 11:41 AM David David  says:
Standards DO exist for both 2G and 3G femtocells - commercially they are required to work with existing cellphones, and since they operate using licenced spectrum they must comply with the strict RF specs on frequency accuracy, power control etc etc.There are several proprietary ways to connect the femtocell back into the cellular operators core network. These include UMA, a standard which supports WiFi and other RF technologies. Some of the infrastructure vendors (e.g. Nokia-Siemens), having invested substantially in RNC/BSC products, have made proprietary adaptations to run the standard Iub protocol over IP - so not a complete standard. Some of the femtocell vendors have developed to these proprietary alternatives and successfully completed interworking tests.Future standards developments include finalising the UMA options to support 3G Iu interface, and relaxing the RF specs for low power situations which will help reduce the cost/complexity.More background and business/technical drivers can be found on my website. Reply

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